Last week, I gave a brief overview of scene and summary. This week, we’re going to delve a little deeper into just summary. Hold onto your hats. As I said in my last post, summary is basically just taking a long period of time and condensing it into a few sentences or less. It’s a very useful technique, but people tend to struggle with using too much of it, so I’m going to talk about when you should use it, and when you shouldn’t. Onto the summarizing…..
Summary can be rather tricky in that it’s all telling, no showing. You’re describing to your reader the events that have happened or are going to happen without actively involving them. There’s no dialogue, no presently occurring action, just statement of fact. Sometimes, though, telling is a great and wonderful thing. If you need to “fast forward” through a large section of fictional time in which nothing of great value to the plot actually happens, you’re going to want to summarize everything. Instead of giving every detail about what George and Martha did on the boring 48 hour train ride home, you’ll probably sum it all up with something along the lines of “It had been a long trip home, completely uneventful and definitely very boring.” 48 hours have just been condensed into a single sentence, and you can jump right back into the action of what happens once they actually arrive home. Backstory can often be summarized, too: “She didn’t tell him about the time she dropped her mother’s wedding ring into the pond when she was four, or when she had accidentally broken her father’s favorite walking stick while playing with horse with it several years later. And she figured he really didn’t need to know about how she’d tripped over her own feet a week ago and completely decimated the giant vase of flowers that used to sit on the table in the front hallway.” You’ve just informed your reader that the protagonist is a klutz, has been for years, and has been involved in several minor accidents without actually having to show the occurrences taking place. The events are there, but you get the basic idea of them very quickly, without any action taking place in the present time of the story. It’s a great way to stick in little details like that without having to take up copious amounts of words in describing events that don’t really add much to the story in their entirety.
There are, however, occasions when summary should not be used at all. Important events should never be summarized, for example. If you’ve spent half the story building up romantic tension between the hero and heroine, the reader is going to want to fully experience the breaking of that tension. They’ll want the sensory details, dialogue, and action. How he grabbed her hand and pulled her so close that she could smell his cologne, or when she finally says “I love you, and I have since I saw you that day at the train station.” The reader wants to be involved in those sorts of moments, not shut out with a synopsis of what happens. The climax of a story should never be summarized, either. How disappointed would you be to get into a great, well written story with characters that you really connected to and a plot that kept you on the edge of your seat, only to reach the height of the tension and read “Once Frodo got to Mount Doom, he failed to destory the One Ring, and Gollum bit off his finger and then accidentally fell into the fire along with the Ring.” Disappointing, isn’t it? There’s no character development, no dramatic dialogue, no tense resolution to the story. It just…ends. “This is what happened, the end.” It’s really kind of boring, and no one wants to read that. We want Frodo’s speech when he decides not to destroy the Ring, we want to “see” Gollum biting off his finger, and we want to be so involved in action that we’re relieved and happy when Gollum falls off the precipice into the flames.
So, to “sum up,” summary is really awesome to have when you’re trying to get through a great deal of information or time that doesn’t have much to do with the actual plot, but should never ever be used to show important events and climaxes in the story. Use this tool wisely. Don’t be afraid to use it, but don’t overuse it either. Next week, we’ll go into detail about scene. Happy writing!